To the Moon in a Blizzard

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The bad news first.

I lost my bees. It is startling how much we miss them.  They are short-lived, fascinating to watch as individuals, but not something you are likely to get attached to on a bee-by-bee basis (although there is an interesting recent study on bee personalities).  As a hive, however, the bees become a community that takes on a presence of its own.  I cannot help but feel that I let them down.

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I had been worried about the bees since late November when there seemed to be an unusual amount of dead bees in front of the hive and–on a few warm days–the continued presence of drones, male bees that generally are kicked out of the hive before winter.  I could hear the bees when I put my ear to side of the hive and they continued sounding strong until early January, when their sound seemed to lessen. They were eating the supplemental sugar I was feeding. But in mid-January–ominous silence. I continued to press my ear to the hive daily, thinking perhaps I could hear a little buzz, but it was just my imagination.

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On a warm day, I took a quick peek inside the lid and confirmed that the bees were dead. I have several theories as to what happened and may know more when it is warm enough to really open up the hive. Or it may be a mystery. I have heard that that losses have been high in our area this winter. I have already ordered bees for next year.

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On to good news. We have a new pack member. Her name is Grampian To the Moon.

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Alice, for short. She is almost three years old, a yellow lab, who just had a litter and is “retiring” from breeding. She loves her walks, will retrieve until the cows come home, and is an extraordinary snuggler.

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Capp trying to worm his way onto the bed with Alice.

She settled in beautifully with Capp, with–fittingly–a sort of Alice and Ralph Kramden relationship.

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He wants to be the boss, but she knows better.

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Capp at seven months

In predicting how Alice would get along with Capp, Alice’s owner said, “bitches always win.”

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In this case, she was right.  It’s been a joy to watch the two of them together.

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We had two days of sun after Alice arrived.

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Then were hit in quick succession with snow, a blizzard, and more snow.

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Our rarely used front door with the snow piled about a foot high.

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George kept a track shoveled in the back yard so the dogs could go to bathroom, but in the high winds it drifted over pretty quickly.

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The dogs were ecstatic in the snow, racing around the track and leaping through the drifts.  IMG_1609.jpgIMG_1621.jpg

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They were wiped out by the time the sun went down.

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Fortunately, we did not lose power and have been warm and cozy.

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The roads are plowed, the foxes are out, and the days are getting longer.

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Several mailboxes on our road were snowplow casualties. Fortunately, ours survived.

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We had a sudden reminder last week that life is fragile and short. So, we are doing our best to slow down and savor it.

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From Capp to Cardoon

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I was looking forward to a serene September. What was I thinking? A new puppy smacks serenity upside the head.

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The whirlwind of Capp’s puppiness descended on us full force–morning wake-up leg attacks, outside-inside-outside-inside-do-it-all-over-again, chew-chew-chew, bite fingers, nibble toes, tug-of-war with dress hems, cabbage kamikaze, eat-who-knows-what in the back yard, water slobbers down the hall.

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Capp loves cabbage, beets, and brussel sprouts

A messy, sometimes frantic, onslaught of new life–questing, exuberant, beautiful, excited, adorable, and a sponge for learning.

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Having a pup again has been tiring, but it’s such a sweet privilege to watch the development of this wonderful, intelligent new creature.

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Capp is an amazing bundle of loving dogginess and wasted no time in working his way firmly into our hearts.

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So, our September days were focused on pup training and preparing for fence installation for our back garden and orchard area.

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We are fencing almost an acre and George has been clearing along the fence line and putting in portions of the fence, over drains and our septic system, by hand.

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We will have help in digging most of the holes and hope to have it completed later this month.

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We are slowly getting things ready for winter. The bee season is wrapping up with a hive loaded with honey that I hope will bring the bees through the winter.

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The hive was surrounded by asters and goldenrod in September

We had a heavier Varroa mite infestation than I would have liked, but treatment seems to have brought the mite levels under control.

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The bees have thrived despite my clumsy mistakes. I actually dumped a hive body on the ground during the last inspection–I thought we had properly separated the middle body from the lower, but the sticky bee propolis brought the lower body along as we lifted the middle one and then as we moved it–crash–the lower body dumped on the ground. It was pretty exciting for a while as the bees let us know they were not at all happy. But aside from two stings on George’s pants, they let us put things back together and we all went about our business. This hive has the gentlest bees that I’ve ever seen.

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I let some of my vegetables flower for the bees.  This is wild bee on a purple carrot flower.

The fall has been warm so far, so I am just starting to ready the garden beds for winter.

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Some flowers linger in the gorgeous fall light.

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We still are picking cherry tomatoes and the cool weather crops, such as carrots, beets, kale, cabbage, and parsnips become sweeter as the temperatures cool. We had an odd summer for eggplants and peppers. They had such a slow start that I almost pulled them to replant with late summer crops.

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Then, suddenly in late July, they took off. Finally, in September, we had a wonderful crop of eggplants and peppers, that I’ve roasted and frozen. And, now, in October, they are still producing.

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We did not have any problems with deer this summer but, unfortunately, the raccoons got to our corn. We had about a week-and-a-half of daily fresh corn before they discovered the corn patch and then one morning–corn devastation. I managed to salvage some of the popcorn, but that was it.

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We tried growing a few exotics (for us) this year, including okra and cardoon. I thoughtlessly planted the okra in the shadiest part of the garden, which was a mistake. Two small plants each proudly produced one pod apiece. They were sort of sweetly pitiful. I will try it again next year in a really sunny spot and I think it will do better. The cardoons started slowly–just like the peppers and eggplants. And then they suddenly grew like weeds. They are related to artichokes, with similar flowers, but ours never made it to the flowering stage.

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Still, I was growing them for the stems, which have an artichoke-like flavor. The leaves are lovely and serrated, but have nasty little spines that need to be removed.

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After the spine removal, I peeled them,

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boiled them, baked them with parmesan, seasoning, and butter, and dotted with cherry tomatoes. They looked promising, but we weren’t very impressed with the flavor or the texture.

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They were not bad, but not great. Considering how much room they take in the garden, I doubt that I will grow them again. Or maybe, with all those spines, I could plant them around the corn to keep the raccoons away.

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September also brought wonderful skies, which promise to get even better in October. I’m looking forward to some serenity this winter. Ha.

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Sweet Symbiosis

IMG_1835A teacher at my beekeeping class this spring warned us that, once we had bees, we would never view plants in the same way again. He was right. I love plants. I like to grow them, observe them, smell them, eat them, identify them, revel in them, and occasionally talk to them. But now, I also see them as allies in keeping my bees healthy and happy.IMG_1193_edited-1
The relationship between bees and flowers is more than just mutually beneficial–they need each other for continued existence. To reproduce, most plants must transfer pollen from the anther to the stigma–a difficult task to pull off alone when you are rooted to the ground and cannot move. That is where wind, animals, and–mostly–flying pollinators come to the rescue. Bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, and birds do the job that plants cannot do for themselves. IMG_1755They spread the riches. And, at the same time, take home some for themselves. A neat arrangement developed over an unimaginable amount of time. A sweet symbiosis.IMG_1851
My daily walks and garden checks have taken on a bee-like perspective. I have become keenly interested in exactly what is blooming, what pollinators are attracted to those blossoms, whether the nectar is flowing, and where my bees are foraging. I have a whole new appreciation of the intricate dance between plants and their pollinators. IMG_1314
After the apple blossoms faded, we had a long spell of dry weather. Although the honeysuckle was blooming, the nectar didn’t seem to be flowing and there were only a few dump-truck-sized bumblebees tumbling around. IMG_0894.jpgWe finally got much-needed rain, after which the flowers and pollinators went into high gear. IMG_1125.jpgIMG_1141_edited-1.jpgIMG_1400Our bees wasted no time in finding our neighbor’s lupines. The bees stretched open the bottom petals to get at the nectar.   Fascinating.IMG_1229
IMG_1235IMG_1234IMG_1237Many of our showiest blossoms are not honey bee magnets.

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No bees yet.

The honey bees have avoided the rhododendrons and peonies, and have shown little interest in the iris or oriental poppies.   Here’s a bee-less poppy through all it’s stages.IMG_1275IMG_1278

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All that pollen. Some bees have been bringing in dark pollen like this, but I haven’t seen them visiting the poppies.

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The bumble bees, in contrast, love the rhododendron and irises.IMG_1296IMG_1389

I discovered the honey bees instead, often deep in the woods, feasting on the inconspicuous green bittersweet blossoms and drifts of raspberry brambles.

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Bittersweet

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Wild bee on a wild raspberry blossom.  I haven’t learned to identify the wild bees yet.  Next year.

Our honey bees are not the only pollinators, of course. We have plenty of wild bees, butterflies, wasps, and birds doing their part. IMG_1465

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He sips lots of flower nectar, too. I just haven’t caught him with the camera.

As an update to previous posts, we have had three active nests in our bird boxes. The bluebirds seemed to have successfully raised their chicks. One day they were coming and going with slugs and worms for their little ones and the next day they were all gone. We missed their departure from the nest.

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Swallows nestbuilding.

But this morning we watched the tree swallow fledglings emerge from another box to take their first flight. They almost crashed into George. Exuberant, glorious things. We still have wrens nesting in the front yard box.IMG_1658
And George built Zoe two ramps. IMG_1563.jpgShe’s appreciative.IMG_0867

One Full Circle

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It has been a year since we moved to Maine. Four seasons on our hillside–a busy, satisfying time, learning about our new home and making it ours.  Our largest project was clearing a patch of land below our lawn, opening it up to a ring of gnarly wild apple trees that had been concealed by brush and saplings.

It looked like this when we moved in:

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You can just see the blossoming tops of the apple trees, obscured by brush and small trees.

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Now garden beds.

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Two of the beautiful old apples in the ring revealed by the clearing.

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Looking across the newly-planted gardens from the hive area.

The cleared space is a work in progress. We still have brush to burn and stumps to pull. But we have put in eight raised beds, an asparagus patch,

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Our first asparagus shoot.

strawberries, two separate rows of tomatoes, a compost bin and a potato patch. Still to come this year are a corn patch, and hills of squash and melons.

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I love strawberries.

The area between the beds has been planted with grass and clover, which is just coming up.

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This jack-in-the-pulpit sprung up near the end of the herb garden.

We have three stone rings planted with annuals. They weren’t planned exactly, but rather grew up around stones too large to remove. Eventually we will build them up into real stone-walled planters and will put in a stone-flagged seating area and firepit.  There’s no shortage of stones.  But, that’s for later.

Perhaps my favorite area is the bee yard.

Here it was last year:IMG_0414

And now:

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The hive and herb garden in the afternoon sun.

We plan to add another hive next year. There is more than enough forage to sustain several hives, if I can just ferry the bees through mites and other bee hazards and keep them alive over the winter. IMG_0396Right now the apple blossoms are in full bloom and the bees seem to be ignoring everything else. IMG_0383IMG_0385IMG_0419IMG_0388.jpgIMG_0392A quick hive check last week showed that the hive is progressing well, despite cold and wet weather at the start. IMG_0111The bees have drawn comb in most of the top box and the queen appears to be laying plenty of brood.

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This shows how the bees draw out the comb–from flat foundation on the lower right gradually building to drawn comb on the upper left.

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Still drawing comb in this frame.

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The comb that you can see in this frame is fully drawn and we could see eggs, larvae and some capped brood–all the phases of the brood cycle.  You can see a squished bee at the edge of the box that I must have mashed when we were last in the hive, checking to see that the queen had been released.  And I was so careful!

Even though we don’t have farm animals (unless the bees count) it’s starting to feel like the little farm we long envisioned. Our neighboring cows provide the farm fragrance, along with the lilacs. IMG_0044.jpgIMG_0535.jpg

And like gardeners and farmers everywhere, we keep an eye on the weather.  We need rain.

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It looks lush, but it’s very dry.

 

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In the dry weather, I’ve been having to clean and fill the birdbath at least once a day. The big  bluejays are messy bathers.  This cardinal looks like he’s telling me that it’s time for a refill.

Despite our lack of rain, our vegetables are coming along.  Radishes and lettuce should be ready for harvest this week.  The chives are flourishing.IMG_0472
Our little orchard is doing beautifully. Except for one hazelnut (which may or may not be dead), all of the fruit trees and berries that we planting are thriving. And I am ridiculously proud that all of the apple grafts that I muddled together at the workshop this spring were successful! IMG_0578At first I thought that only two grafts took, which would have meant that I was a dismal grafting failure. But, slowly, one tree at a time, buds swelled on the grafted scions and then little leaves popped out. If I can keep deer and other critters from munching on them, we will have nine more old heritage varieties to add to our orchard. IMG_0504
Our bluebirds are vigilantly protecting their nest.   They successfully fended off the swallows and chased away a house wren that set up phony nests in two of other bird houses.

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It took the wren a while to figure out how to get this stick inside.

I like the wrens (tail wagging and singing), IMG_0146but apparently they sometimes rob other nests and the bluebirds and goldfinches were quite aggressive in going after them. IMG_0359

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Although I suspect the tea cup flowers are roses, I’ve always thought of them as apple blossoms.  The finch in the apple is as close as I’ll likely get to reproducing this tea cup scene.

George built a beautiful cedar table to go with our outside bench IMG_0601.jpgand he’s about to build a ramp for Zoe, who turned twelve this spring. She has some neuropathy and arthritis that is making it hard for her to climb stairs. She’s slowing down, sweet girl, but loves it here. It’s a good place to grow old.IMG_0639

The Vixen and The Queen

IMG_8241_edited-1Our resident fox has five kits. Their den is in an acre of woods abutting our land and is visible from our southern windows. At first we saw the vixen–a gorgeous creature–going regularly to a spot by a stone wall. Eventually we started to see other movement in there–small gray animals, looking rather squirrel-like. Out came the binoculars, which revealed some kits.

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This isn’t the den, it’s in our orchard-to-be

We’ve been spying on them since. The vixen spies on us, too, keeping a careful watch when we are working in the yard. IMG_7933
She seems to be gone for hours sometimes, presumably hunting, and when she returns the kits all come running. She nurses, grooms them, and lets them explore the surroundings, herding them back if they go too far. IMG_8080One morning, we watched her hunt in the long grass where our orchard will be. IMG_8089She caught a squirrel and some smaller rodents–voles, I suspect. IMG_8012Foxes are considered beneficial here for tick reduction because they kill many of the tick-carrying rodents. No one in the immediate neighborhood has any chickens, so the fox is quite welcome. Apparently this acre of woods has had a fox den for at least a few years. The kits, of course, are ridiculously adorable. They are turning from gray to red and getting bolder. IMG_8256
Lucky for me, they’ve been providing entertainment because I twisted my ankle a few days ago. I was in apple mode at the time, focusing on learning all I can for rehabilitating our old apple trees and creating a new orchard. I had just been to a grafting workshop where we learned whip & tongue grafting.

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This was our example of a proper cut. You can see the cut back “tongue” if you look carefully.

Apple seeds, like people, are unique and different from their parent trees, so grafting is necessary to reproduce specific apple varieties. Whip grafting involves attaching an apple root stock to a scion–last year’s branch growth from the desired variety–by cutting both quite precisely with a very, very sharp knife. IMG_8450Needless to say, learning was messy. 20160409_124420.jpgI was pretty good at making the initial cut, but had a terrible time cutting the tongue properly. It got a little bloody. Nevertheless, I went home with eight newly grafted old apple varieties, with wonderful names such as Blue Permain, Yellow Transparent, Rhode Island Greening, Northern Spy, and Cox’s Orange Pippin. If half of them make it, I’ll be lucky.20160409_132501
My other orcharding activity, pruning, resulted in the sprained ankle. Nothing exciting, I just hopped off the apple ladder into a hole and the damage was done. I have a tendency to sprain my ankle at really bad times (twice while on vacation in Hawaii). This time was no exception because the bees were arriving in two days. Fortunately, I know the sprained ankle routine. I iced it, wrapped it, elevated it, watched the foxes, and recovered remarkably quickly (which I attribute to yoga). IMG_8068
That brings us to the queen. She is here, along with the rest of the bees, although she likely is still caged. I ordered a package of bees from a wonderful local apiary, where I had taken beekeeping classes. They picked up a trailer load of packaged bees in Georgia and arrived in Maine with them on Saturday. Each package had 3 pounds of bees and a caged queen.  George had been working on the hive area and it was ready for bees.

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We took down a low-hanging branch from a cherry that was shading the hive too much. The flies and a moth gorged on the sap.

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IMG_7858We picked up our bees and brought them home.  There are many ways to hive bees, depending on the hives and personal preference. IMG_8145We’re newbies (or newbeeks, in beekeeper slang), so don’t even pretend to be knowledgeable.  But, here’s what we did.  I lightly sprayed the bees with sugar syrup. IMG_8147I removed the can of feeding syrup from the package and then the queen’s cage. She is surrounded by bees here, so you can’t see her. IMG_8162There is a bit of “candy” in the lower third of the queen cage, which the bees are supposed to eat through to get to the queen and release her. That process gives them time to get used to the queen (so they won’t kill her). I gently poked a hole in the candy with a nail (easier said than done) and placed the cage on a frame in the hive. IMG_8158Then I thumped the package on the ground to get the bees in one corner and dumped them in the hive. IMG_8166A bit more thumping, shaking, and dumping and most were out. IMG_8171Then I very gently, without squishing any bees (I think) put the remaining frames in the hive. IMG_8174IMG_8179We gently brushed the bees off the top and, with George’s help (thus, no photos) slid the feeder on and put the quilt and roof on. Success! IMG_8195Blooms have barely started here, so the bees will need to be fed sugar syrup for the next few weeks. I will check the hive on Tuesday to see if the queen has made it out of her cage. In the meantime, the bees appear to be doing well. IMG_8268I find them mesmerizing.
IMG_7887.jpgFinally, the Tom turkey put on quite a display last week, presenting his rear to us from every angleIMG_7900IMG_7898

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Zoe presented her belly.

Hodgepodge

IMG_6535February has been a motley month. Outside, the days swing from winter snow, to pelting rain, to a golden, sun-infused, warm calm in a few hours. Back-and-forth, keeping us on our toes. IMG_6354.jpg
Sunrises are working their way north across our hill horizon, but the transition to spring is erratic. IMG_6151We have ice on puddles some mornings, while in the background we are starting to hear the birds’ spring mating calls.

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This bell-shaped piece of ice was hanging over a stream at the edge of a small waterfall.

IMG_6747Perhaps the best harbinger of spring, though, is the maple sap, which has started to flow.

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In modern sap collection for maple syrup, tubes carry the sap out of the tree, to the sugar house. Ugly but efficient.

The Bohemian Waxwings have hung around for weeks, dwindling from enormous flocks to smaller groups of thirty or forty. IMG_6271IMG_6215At first, they were spooked if I even opened a door, but eventually they grew more comfortable with us and I was able to get closer for photos.
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We took a road trip last week to the FEDCO warehouse, a little more than an hour away. FEDCO is a seed, tree, and garden supply cooperative that is one of Maine’s treasures. On the way home, we swung over to Unity, the little farm town that hosts the Common Ground fair, is next to Bryant’s museum, and has a sizable traditional Amish population (previous Unity posts, Finding Common Ground, and Bryant’s).

Now it has another attraction. A world-class chef, formerly at Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s restaurant, left the high-pressure restaurant life, became Amish, and set up a charcuterie in the woods of Unity, with no-electricity, in the Amish way. His story has received considerable publicity lately (here’s a link to a great NPR piece amish deli) and, after driving down a rutted dirt lane, we found a long line inside the little store. People from all over were patiently waiting to buy sausage and cured meats, while watching what was kind of a show. This former chef, with a long beard and traditional Amish clothing, talked everyone up while he cut meat on fascinating non-electric slicers that looked like hundred-year-old relics. He was always moving, efficiently wrapping the meat and cheese in butcher paper with string pulled from overhead, while his young Amish assistant rang up purchases on an old-style cash register. We went home with some bacon, smoked pork loin, and smoked cheese. I can attest to its deliciousness. I am continually amazed by what Maine has to offer.

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Smoked provolone.

February has been spring-planning time. Our (massively over-ambitious?) seed orders have arrived, we are gauging drainage and soil moisture to plan our orchard and garden bed lay outs. Likewise, we have been paying careful attention to winter sun and wind for locating our bee hive. We ordered the hive early and I happily spent two mornings constructed the frames that will hold the wax foundation for the bees to build their comb.

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We will not be locating the hive in the spare bedroom.

Much more to come on the hive when we set it up for the bees’ arrival near the end of April.

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Building the frames.  I have mise en place for nails.

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Our winter garden revealed a new side this month. It sprouted rocks and shells. IMG_6417When we moved here late last May, we could see some shells and unusual rocks peeking out from under the perennials. But only now, with the snow melted and last year’s greenery gone or flattened, is their loveliness revealed. IMG_6510IMG_6631_edited-1Oyster, clam, mussel, and scallop shells are flanked by small collections of rocks with garnets, mica, rings, striations, and unusual shapes. IMG_6618IMG_6616They are beautiful against the dead winter leaves and stalks. Another unexpected treat from the former owners of this garden. IMG_6611Among the shells and rocks, some sprouts are emerging. Soon we will complete the final first year in this garden, seeing what bulbs will emerge.IMG_6247